a photo of a beach in Hawaii
Sunny Hawaii could be the place to show off the eco-benefits of fuel cell vehicles. Caleb Jones/AP

As prices drop for renewable power, some researchers hope the island state could be the ideal testbed for hydrogen fuel cells in public transportation.

For nearly a century, the hydrogen energy economy has been the greenest pipe dream. Inventors, theorists, and wealthy entrepreneurs have envisioned whole societies powered by the chemical reaction that occurs when hydrogen meets air. But the cost and efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells has held back widespread adoption.

Now some proponents insist that this magical-seeming alternative fuel is ready for prime time. To illustrate why, look to the warm shores of Hawaii. In the coming months, a hydrogen-powered shuttle bus will be integrated into the Hawaii County public transit fleet. By summer, an electrified Ford F-550 equipped with a fuel cell should be transporting citizens up and down the hills of the Big Island.

This little bus project is years in the making, seeded long ago by a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy later leveraged into an additional $3 million from the state and the Office of Naval Research. Mitch Ewan, the hydrogen systems program manager at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii, has spearheaded the project. From his perch in Oahu, he’s spent nearly two decades trying to pioneer a hydrogen-powered path for the island state.

“The high-level concept is to use tax dollars to support the general public, as opposed to wealthy individuals who can afford the cars,” he said. “This is the perfect fuel of the future.”

The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute hydrogen station, ready to fuel a shuttle bus later this year. (County of Hawaii)

There’s a lot of hope riding on this bus—just as there has been on hydrogen energy for decades. Fuel cells, which generate an electrical current via a chemical reaction, make a tempting power source: Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, after all, and the only emissions left behind are clean water vapor. Unlike conventional batteries, compressed hydrogen can be stored with little energy loss for long stretches of time, and fuel cell vehicles can be recharged in minutes.

But there’s a long list of catches and caveats that have so far hamstrung this technology. Most hydrogen on earth is locked up in water, hydrocarbons, and various organic matter; separating it and compressing the gas for use in a fuel cell consumes a lot of energy. Most commercial hydrogen isn’t exactly green, since it’s mostly derived from fossil fuels, though it can also be produced from renewable sources, like solar and wind power (more on this in a moment). The inefficiency of this process, and the absence of a hydrogen-energy distribution grid, have kept costs too high to compete with traditional gas- or battery-powered vehicles, except in specialized settings. (It’s very handy for spacecraft, for example.) Meanwhile, plug-in batteries are getting cheaper and more powerful by the day. So hydrogen-powered cars remain a tiny niche of the alternative fuel vehicle world.

But Ewan and others believe that hydrogen makes more sense than battery-electric vehicles in the long term, especially for public transit. And Hawaii might be the place to prove that, because the future of fuel cells depends largely on the economics of the energy that generates the hydrogen to begin with.

Hawaii, which was named one of the top states for hydrogen fuel cell activity by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2016, is number-one in the nation in solar photovoltaic capacity per capita. With one of three single-family homes kitted out with rooftop panels, it’s producing huge shares of its electricity through renewables. The island state has also become a hotbed of geothermal energy production.

The massive penetration of rooftop solar means that upwards of 30 percent (some days far more) of Hawaii’s electricity already comes from renewables. Utility-scale projects, including wind and hydropower farms, are generating yet more clean power. That’s led to an embarrassment of riches: Hawaiian Electric now draws too much solar on many days, and is often forced to curtail it at times when the sun is shining and energy consumption is low. But that excess solar could be used to produce hydrogen and containerized for later use by vehicles.

“Part of the discussion has always been, what do we do with all that excess power? Batteries are one of the most expensive options,” said Chris Lee, a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and former chair of the state energy committee. “The cheapest and easiest way might just be using it to create hydrogen.”

If the costs can all pencil out, the potential for Hawaii and the hydrogen-energy economy might be big. “Fuel cells just speak really well to an island state,” said Jon Y. Nouchi, the deputy director of the department of transportation services in Honolulu. “We’ve got to have a stronger eye towards resilience. In terms of what we do in case a natural disaster to keep transit running, diversification is really important. We can’t foreclose on one mode of energy delivery.”  

Fuel cell testing has a long history on the Hawaiian islands, where the Marine Corps and Navy have been operating hydrogen facilities for specialized military conveyances for decades. In Honolulu Harbor, the Department of Energy recently completed a new generator project led by Sandia National Laboratory. And on the Big island, a philanthropy and think tank called Blue Planet Research is demoing a hydrogen storage system supported by a micro-grid.

On the public transportation front, there have been setbacks galore. Delays for parts—a compressor here, an HVAC vent there—have slowed progress for the Big Island shuttle bus by semesters at a time. Then there were the volcanos. Two eruptions nearly cancelled the project: first, by stranding a slew of Ewan’s carefully assembled assets at a Big Island geothermal plant where Ewan has originally planned to set up production. Then last summer’s massive lava flow from Kilauea badly damaged electrical infrastructure at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which had originally planned to use some of Ewan’s hydrogen power.

As a result, Ewan had to switch locations—now the production plant is near the Big Island’s airport—and scale back ambitions to a single shuttle bus. All the while, yet another planned hydrogen fuel-cell shuttle bus demonstration, this one at Honolulu International Airport on Oahu, failed to launch. This time it was because the vehicle arrived late from the manufacturer, Chinese vehicle-maker BYD.

All of the local anticlimax feels sort of a metaphor for hydrogen technology itself. “It just hasn’t taken off that much,” said Peter Rosegg, a senior spokesman at the Hawaiian Electric, the state’s largest utility.

Advanced fuel cell buses are part of several California transit agencies, including SunLine (top left), UCI (top right), MBTA (lower left), and OCTA (lower right). (U.S. Department of Energy)

Now the stars might be finally aligning, especially as Hawaii endeavors to ditch fossil fuels. In 2015, the heavily oil-dependent state became first in the U.S. to commit to use 100-percent renewable energy sources by 2045. Since then, Hawaii has been overhauling its transportation systems, in addition to its electric grids. The state has heavily subsidized plug-in electric vehicle purchases, and Honolulu now has the eighth-highest market share of EVs in the U.S. Urban counties are moving to convert diesel bus fleets to plug-ins, and a electric light-rail project is supposed to cut through Honolulu’s infamous traffic (if it can surmount huge budget shortfalls).

Hydrogen could also help fill some of the remaining niches, and it’s been nosing its way into the transportation mix. Last summer, Servco, Hawaii’s largest auto dealership operator, opened the state’s first publicly accessible hydrogen fueling station at a Toyota dealership on Oahu. Currently, the vast majority of such pumps are located in Southern California. The unveiling of the site, which also produces the fuel it dispenses, coincided with the dealership’s earliest leases of the Toyota Mirai, the Japanese automaker’s first fuel cell vehicle, or FCV. (Japan’s been a world leader in developing the technology, with limited success, so far—the 2020 Olympics are expected to be a major showcase of its progress.) Hawaii is only the second state in the U.S. to lease the Mirai, after California. Other automakers, including Hyundai, Honda, and Mercedes, also sell FCVs, though not in all markets.

A Toyota Project Portal hydrogen fuel cell electric semi-truck and a Honda Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle are shown during an event in San Francisco in 2018. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Given the economics, hydrogen could be more likely to take off for industrial and municipal fleets first. Jigar Shah, the co-founder of Generate Capital, which finances, builds, and operates energy infrastructure, said that hydrogen pencils out best for fleets of long-range and fixed-route conveyances, such as heavy-duty trucks, forklifts, and buses. Hydrogen fuel cells are relatively lightweight, making them ideal for heavy loads and long stretches of travel that mass transit agencies and factories require. That’s also where there’s enough built-in scale to justify building the requisite infrastructure, especially since those sorts of operators can rely on just one central fueling station.

In contrast, personal vehicles require lots of stations distributed around large areas, which means even more upfront investment for less return. “It costs $3 million to build a hydrogen fueling station, and then you have to assume enough people are going to buy cars to use it,” Shah said. And that’s hard to do: Mirais cost about $60,000.

Hawaii’s shuttle pilot reveals just how daunting those upfront costs are—one little bus and a fueling station has cost $5 million. But now that the infrastructure is set up—including, in this case, the tools to generate hydrogen onsite, from largely renewable sources—additional vehicles can join in more cheaply and easily, Ewan hopes. “The graph will go down on degree of difficulty and expense,” he said.

And as the bus project gets rolling, the plan is to see how it performs on different sorts of routes. With all of Hawaii’s rolling topography, project leaders are especially keen to see how the hydrogen bus performs compared to plug-ins, which tend to poop out on long uphill climbs.

Hawaii isn’t alone in its hydrogen odysseys. A handful of vehicles have been floating around in U.S. transit agencies for at least 15 years, and they’re gaining in number. California has called for all of its public transit fleets to be zero-emission vehicles by 2040. So in addition to stocking up on plug-in buses, transit agencies from the Bay Area to the southern border are also integrating hydrogen models into their fleets, and seeing encouraging results. One recent evaluation by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that Alameda Contra-Costa County Transit District, which serves Oakland, surpassed its targets for operating hours and reliability with its 13 fuel cell buses and two fueling stations. “We have proved to the world that a fuel cell can run up to 30,000 hours and beyond,” Salvador Lamas, the COO of the agency, told Ward’s Auto.

Hydrogen still faces plenty of headwinds—principally, the momentum that more established energy technologies already have. (One famous hydrogen skeptic is Tesla’s Elon Musk, who dubbed the rival technology “fool cells.”) But if Hawaii can prove that fuel cells makes sense, perhaps other parts of the world with isolated grids and high energy costs can, too. And the moment to test it might be now. The cost of renewable energy and traditional fossil fuels is drawing closer to parity, and Hawaii, California, and other clean power pioneers are grappling to make the most efficient use of their glut of renewable energy.

So there’s a lot of expectation aboard Ewan’s little shuttle bus. Speaking over the phone, Ewan sounds practically in disbelief that he’s this close to lift-off. But he’s still a consummate energy devotee through all the lessons and setbacks his project has gone through.

“You can’t let this stuff let you down, because there’s been a silver lining in all of it,” he said. “We’re like the Energizer Bunny. You just keep on going.”

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